If the Shift is Banned in 2022, Which Royals Hitters Benefit the Most?

Negotiations continue to be at a standstill between MLB owners and the MLBPA after they met again on Sunday afternoon. According to the Athletic’s Evan Drellich, MLB owners were quick to point the finger on the players for an unproductive day of negotiations:

However, after more reports came out later in the day, it seems like the MLBPA were more than willing to meet some of the owners’ demands.

One interesting rule change that the owners and MLBPA came to an agreement on was the banning of the defensive shift, which has been frequently employed by more “analytically-minded” teams in the past few years:

The banning of the shift is definitely one of the more polarizing rule change possibilities among MLB fans.

To some baseball fans, teams shouldn’t be penalized for doing their research and exposing flaws of hitters who cannot make proper adjustments. At the same time, the shift has severely depressed offense in the modern game of baseball and has made hitting more “three true outcomes”-centered (i.e. home run, strikeout, or walk).

That model isn’t exactly endearing to casual sports fans who already feel that baseball isn’t “exciting” enough (i.e. the younger generation of baseball fans).

Banning the shift would at least allow for more non-home run base hits, which could make games more exciting, since innings will not be killed by groundballs that are hit into an infield that is overloaded to one side of the field on a shift.

More base hits lead to more runs. That in turn creates more excitement on the field for players and fans, at the end of the day.

And thankfully for Royals fans, there are a few Royals hitters who would benefit greatly from the banning of the shift in 2022 and beyond. While the Royals did rank ninth in batting average a season ago, they struggled to produce runs on a consistent basis, as evidenced by Kansas City ranking 24th in runs scored in 2021.

By taking a look at Baseball Savant “batter positioning” data, I identify three Royals hitters who could see an uptick in production due to this new rule change. Furthermore, I also look at why the banning of the shift could not only help these hitters on an individual basis but also the Royals lineup as a whole next season.

Carlos Santana, 1B/DH

In his first year in Kansas City, Santana had arguably the worst season of his career in 2021, as he posted an 83 wRC+ and generated an fWAR of -0.3 in 158 games and 659 plate appearances. While Santana was apparently suffering from a hip injury in August, that didn’t excuse the fact that he only hit .214 overall, including a .176 mark in the second half of the season. That paltry mark was amplified by a 39 wRC+ over that timespan as well (compared to a 117 wRC+ in the first half).

At 35-years-old and playing in a more pitcher-friendly park in Kauffman Stadium than the more hitter-friendly one in Progressive Field in Cleveland, some kind of regression was to be expected from Santana in the move to Kansas City last season. And yet, Santana did hit 10 home runs in the first two months of the season and 15 home runs in the first half of the season, so he did at least flash 20-plus home run potential before regressing sharply after the All-Star Break.

Add that strong start with a BB/K ratio that was still impressive last year (0.84), and it is easy to think that Santana could bounce back in 2022, should he stay healthy and if he gets a little more fortunate at the plate when it comes to batted balls.

One thing that really stands out from Santana’s past four seasons is his BABIP has been EXTREMELY low in three of the past four years. During the shortened 2020 season in Cleveland, his BABIP was .212, a career-low. Last season in Kansas City, his BABIP was .227, the second-worst mark in his career. And in 2018, his lone season in Philadelphia, his BABIP was .231, the third-worst BABIP of his career.

Just to compare: from 2010-2017, Santana’s BABIP has only been under .250 once (.249 in 2014).

Hence, no one has been hurt by teams employing the defensive shift with more regularity than Santana over the past half-decade.

Here’s an example of Santana grounding out against the shift in Houston to end the inning (with former Royal Zack Greinke on the mound), which became a common image of frustration for not just Santana, but Royals fans as well.

Furthermore, Santana’s struggles against the shift are fully transparent in the Statcast positioning data, especially from last season.

What’s interesting from last season is that even though Santana is a switch hitter, opposing teams still shifted on him a decent amount to the pull side of where he was batting.

Here’s a look at how the infield positioned themselves against him when he hit left-handed:

Santana vs. RHP

And here’s how the infield positioned themselves against Santana when he was batting right-handed last season:

Santana vs. LHP

Now, let’s take a look at how often Santana faced defenses employing the shift, and how he performed on a wOBA basis both against the shift and when opposing teams didn’t employ such tactics.

As Royals fans can see, Santana was a very good hitter for the Royals when teams did not employ the shift against him, especially when he hit from the left side.

In fact, when batting left-handed, Santana was 254 points better when he didn’t face a shift. And though he didn’t see the shift as often when he hit from the right side of the plate (only 23.8 percent, nearly 54 percent less), he still was 36 points better against lefties in non-shift situations.

Therefore, with the shift banned, it is possible that in 2022 Santana could be closer to that first-half hitter of 2021 rather than the one who struggled after the All-Star Break.

And that would not only help the Royals lineup be more productive overall, but it could also help generate some trade value for Santana once the season begins.

Ryan O’Hearn, 1B/OF

Other than Santana (well…left-handed Santana), no Royals hitter last season saw the shift more than O’Hearn, on a percentage of plate appearances basis.

And it proved to be a wise decision by opposing teams, as the difference in O’Hearn’s wOBA in shift situations and non-shift situations was quite dramatic:

Here’s an example in a July game against Cleveland at Progressive Field where O’Hearn hits the ball hard to the second-base side of the infield with an exit velocity of 105.8 MPH.

And yet, due to the shift, Cleveland’s second baseman Cesar Hernandez is able to make a routine play on the groundball to get O’Hearn out easily at first base.

I am not sure the banning of the shift would have as big an impact on O’Hearn as Santana, but it is obvious from plays like the one above that he would see some positive regression in 2022 if the shift is banned. O’Hearn did post a .277 BABIP a year ago (still below the general league average which is around .300), and his expected batting average of .235 was 10 points higher than his actual batting average in 2021.

Therefore, without the shift, O’Hearn could see some of those hard-hit groundouts become base hits in 2022…

And that could not just help him stay in the Royals lineup as a semi-regular in 2022, but on the Royals’ active roster in general for at least a little bit longer (he just entered his first year of arbitration this offseason).

Hunter Dozier, 3B/1B/OF/DH

Of right-handed Royals hitters, Dozier saw the fourth-most shifts in 2021 as he saw a shift in 16 percent of his plate appearances. Only Salvy (58.9 percent), Emmanuel Rivera (25.5 percent), and right-handed Santana (23.8 percent) saw the shift more from the right side of the dish.

However, the shift didn’t seem to have much of an impact on those other three hitters. Salvy only saw a 24 point difference in wOBA, while Santana’s was slightly higher at 36 points. Furthermore, Rivera actually hit better when teams employed the shift, as his .339 wOBA against the shift was actually 67 points higher than non-shifted defense.

Unfortunately for Dozier, he didn’t quite follow Rivera’s lead, which is evidenced in the Statcast breakdown from last season below:

Dozier was 85 points worse against the shift in 2021, and his .222 wOBA against the shift was the worst mark for any Royals hitter who saw the shift in more than 10 percent of their plate appearances.

What was further interesting to note about his offensive struggles is how differently the outfield and infield defenses played Dozier last season.

Let’s take a look at how opposing defenses played Dozier when they did shift against him:

Dozier Against Shift

Now, let’s take a look at how the defense was positioned when “not” shifted, which occurred in 84 percent of Dozier’s plate appearances a year ago.

Notice how the outfield doesn’t play Dozier all that differently in shift and non-shift situations, unlike the infield, which is heavily overloaded on the right side of the infield. In both instances, the outfield defense is trying to take the lines away from Dozier, especially in right field.

The positioning makes sense, especially considering that Dozier has gone to the opposite field 25.4 percent of the time and up the middle 36.9 percent of the time over his career (that included a 41.3 percent straightaway mark a season ago).

Here’s an example of the St. Louis Cardinals at Kauffman Stadium in August employing the shift in the infield, but keeping the outfield in their typical position. The strategy works to the Cardinals’ favor, as Dozier lines out easily to right field off of Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty:

I will be interested to see how Dozier fares with the banning of the shift because of how outfielders have played him in the past. It isn’t out of the question to think that Dozier won’t experience that much of an improvement with the rule change in 2022, mostly because outfielders played Dozier pretty normally, even with the infield heavily overloaded.

However, Dozier is a streaky hitter, and if he can get some of those groundball singles to fall through, that could help him gain more confidence and drive the ball with authority on a more consistent basis.

After all, Dozier has posted a sub-.300 BABIP the past two years (.288 in 2020; .276 in 2021), which have been both mediocre campaigns. Those BABIP numbers are a far cry from the .339 BABIP he posted in 2019, a season in which he nearly made the All-Star game at third base.

And hence, if the shift is gone, and that BABIP spikes for Dozier in 2022?

Well…maybe Royals fans will see that 2019-version of Dozier again after two off years.

Photo Credit: Jon Blacker/MLB Photos via Getty Images

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